11/22/2006 12:00AM

Clark dozen a first-rate assembly

Deborah Kral/Horsephotos
Premium Tap, here winning the Woodward, will once again have Kent Desormeaux as his rider for Friday's Clark Handicap.

But is that fair? This is about as good as racing gets: 12 handicap runners, including two Breeders' Cup holdovers and five 2006 graded stakes winners, will clash Friday in the 132nd running of the $500,000 Clark.

This is the first year the Clark has been upgraded to Grade 1 status, and the depth of the field suggests the raise was justified.

Premium Tap, the third-place finisher behind Invasor and Bernardini in the BC Classic, is the 122-pound highweight and probable favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Clark. His opponents include such accomplished horses as Super Frolic, an earner of nearly $1.4 million who exits the BC Mile; Wanderin Boy, winner of the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap; It's No Joke, winner of the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup; Bright One, winner of the Grade 3 West Virginia Derby; and Master Command, winner of the Grade 2 Meadowlands BC Handicap.

Premium Tap, trained by John Kimmel, has run two particularly strong races this year. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 107 winning the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga at 31-1 on Sept. 2, and after an absurdly troubled trip in the Sept. 30 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park, he got a Beyer Figure of 111 when he ran third in the BC Classic.

Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux was aboard Premium Tap in both the Woodward and Kentucky Cup, but Kimmel replaced him in the BC Classic with Edgar Prado. For the Clark, Desormeaux has gotten a reprieve, and he intends to make the most of it.

"The only way he can get beat this time is if he gets outrun," said Desormeaux, who was just 18 when he won his first and only Clark in 1988 aboard Balthazar B. "I sure messed it up at Turfway, but when you ride Desormeaux, those things are not supposed to happen."

Desormeaux was aboard Premium Tap at Belmont Park last weekend for an untimed half-mile workout that Kimmel caught in a little more than 47 seconds.

"John gave me the boot after the Turfway race, and I deserved it," said Desormeaux. "But I know this horse, and I can tell you he is doing super. There's nothing more I'd like than to vindicate myself by winning this race."

If Premium Tap is not up to the task, there are plenty of viable alternatives.

Super Frolic, a 6-year-old horse who has logged plenty of time in Florida, Delaware, and California, will soon be on his way to New Orleans with trainer Scott Blasi's first string after spending the last few weeks at Churchill. Super Frolic is winless this year but finished third behind Lava Man in both the Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic.

Wanderin Boy is an extremely dangerous front-runner who skipped the BC Classic and other races to await the Clark, which his Hall of Fame trainer, Nick Zito, won three years ago with Quest.

It's No Joke will try to overachieve one more time Friday after rising through the handicap ranks this year with five wins, most notably the Sept. 30 Hawthorne Gold Cup and the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap on the Breeders' Cup undercard.

Bright One will try to become the sixth 3-year-old since 1990 to defeat older horses in the Clark. His breeder and co-owner, Mike Bruder, said the colt should be able to resist a ruinous early duel with Wanderin Boy.

"If he needs to sit off it, that's what he'll do," said Bruder.

Master Command earned a lifetime-high 114 Beyer in the Oct. 13 Meadowlands BC, after which trainer Todd Pletcher briefly considered the BC Classic before waiting for the Clark.

"We felt like the Classic was maybe coming back a little too quick," said Pletcher.

The rest of the Clark field is A.P. Arrow, Wiggins, Andromeda's Hero, Wild Desert, Irene's Mon, and M B Sea.

The Clark is the 11th of 12 races on a Friday card that begins at 11:30oa.m. Eastern. Post time for the Clark is 4:29 p.m.